National Institutes of Health Discovers Nondrug Pain Management Approach

Complementary health approaches for managing pain conditions may reduce opioid prescriptions.

Researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have found that complementary health approaches may be able to adequately relieve pain that is not well-controlled by medications.

Access to pain killers, such as opioids, is a growing problem in the United States due to an increase in awareness about overprescribing of the drugs, and a subsequent increase in opioid misuse disorders and overdoses. It has been found in previous studies that patients with chronic pain are 41% more likely to develop a prescription opioid use disorder than patients without chronic pain.

Finding a nondrug alternative is a critical part of preventing opioid use disorders and related overdoses. Previously, nondrug approaches to pain management lacked evidence for physicians to recommend complementary approaches for patients to pursue, according to the NIH.

These new findings can allow physicians to properly inform decision-making on alternative pain management techniques.

“For many Americans who suffer from chronic pain, medications may not completely relieve pain and can produce unwanted side effects. As a result, many people may turn to nondrug approaches to help manage their pain,” said Richard L. Nahin, PhD, NCCIH’s lead epidemiologist and lead author of the analysis. “Our goal for this study was to provide relevant, high-quality information for primary care providers and for patients who suffer from chronic pain.”

Researchers analyzed 105 previously conducted studies that examined patients with pain in the United States. They focused on common painful conditions and discovered a promising complementary health approach for each.

  • back pain: acupuncture and yoga
  • osteoarthritis of the knee: acupuncture and Tai Chi
  • neck pain: massage therapy
  • severe headache and migraines: relaxation techniques

Researchers found weaker evidence for certain approaches, such as massage therapy, spinal manipulation, and osteopathic manipulation for relieving back pain, according to the study. They also found weaker evidence that relaxation approaches and Tai Chi may relieve pain associated with fibromyalgia.

“These data can equip providers and patients with the information they need to have informed conversations regarding non-drug approaches for treatment of specific pain conditions,” said David Shurtleff, PhD, deputy director of NCCIH. “It’s important that continued research explore how these approaches actually work and whether these findings apply broadly in diverse clinical settings and patient populations.”